I spent much of my career running Camp Hollis, a children’s camp on the shores of Lake Ontario in Oswego. After attending the camp when I was younger, I worked my way through college as a Camp Hollis counselor, and then oversaw the facility while working for the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau. With so many of my summers focused on Hollis, I never knew that, at one time, the city of Fulton had its own camp for children: Camp SuSIE.
Founded in 1966, the camp’s official name, “Operation SuSIE,” stood for “Summer School Innovations in Education.” The program was the brainchild of several Fulton School District administrators, including Superintendent Glenn Clark. Back in 2014, I met Glenn through the Fulton Library’s Memoir Project. Glenn had agreed to write a memoir about his work with Fulton schools and here’s what he said about why Camp SuSIE was created:
“We determined that one important need for our children was an improvement in reading scores at the elementary level. A city-wide survey was made to select pupils aged eight to eleven who needed help in reading. We surmised that one way to help those students was to have them spend two weeks in a camp setting, where they would work with a staff of teachers and other personnel to provide schooling, especially reading instruction.”
A 1968 Watertown Daily Times newspaper reported how Camp SuSIE succeeded from its very first summer: “Funds [are] from Title I’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act…Youngsters from Fulton Schools learn through the experience of living together, the constructive use of leisure time, the formation of positive health habits, and the study of academic subjects. It is the only summer school of its kind in the state, and has been termed a success by state education officials, school boards, teachers, [the camp’s] director, and especially the youngsters.”
Glenn Clark made special mention of the all-important leader of Camp SuSIE: “[We chose] Physical Education teacher Angelo “Buck” Godici, to direct the camp. Mr. Godici later became known as ‘Mr. SuSIE’ in the community.”
A much respected Fulton schools faculty member, Buck Godici taught and coached from 1956 through 1981. Recently I asked Buck how the Camp SuSIE program ran. “We served 80 children for each of three two-week sessions,” he explained. “The first session was for the younger kids, nine and ten year olds; the second for 11 and 12; and the third for 13 and 14 year olds. To staff the program we hired two teachers, two college students and two high school students.”
Buck mentioned some of his staff by name and I recognized a few of them, including former Fulton teacher Tom Brown. Tom reminisced about working at SuSIE’s first location, Camp Totem in Harrisville, New York, a remote area near the Canadian border:
“We’d go up to Harrisville a couple weeks ahead of time and clean the camp up to get it ready. It was out in the woods and was really rough. They had a trough that we used for washing up and campers bathed in the Oswegatchie River.”
Over the years, Buck’s children also served on the staff, including his son Mike, who explained more about Camp Totem’s woodland setting: “All the buildings were log cabins or cobblestone. The camp had no electricity, so Dad hooked up a generator—a tractor engine—to run from dinnertime until lights out so the kitchen could clean up and the kids could get ready for bed. A pump provided water and only one building had a toilet.”
One the SuSIE staff’s jobs involved cleaning up after some unwelcome visitors. “One year, a bear broke into one of the camp buildings, ate our food and destroyed a cabin,” Buck recalled. “We had to hire a security guard to stay at the camp on weekends to make sure that didn’t happen again.”
After using Camp Totem from 1966-1968, SuSIE’s program was held at two other New York state locations: from 1969-74 at a YMCA Camp in Pawling, and from 1975-77 at Star Lake. Lots of Fulton teens and college-aged students had their first job experience as a Camp SuSIE staff member, including Alex Grimshaw.
“I learned to live and work with people in a unique team environment,” Alex said. “I learned a lot about myself, how to work collaboratively with my peers, how to support the camp administrator, and how important it was to be a role model for the students.”
My talks with other staff indicated that, along with reading help, the campers also learned about health and nutrition and received much needed supplies. “Each camper got a new pair of sneakers and sweatshirts,” Mike Godici noted. “It meant so much to them.”
When most of us think of camp we imagine it taking place in July and August, but as Mike pointed out, “SuSIE wasn’t a six-week program for Dad. He’d spend the entire spring getting kids to sign up by going door to door in Fulton. He’d come home with stories of houses with dirt floors and no toilets. Dad was excited for those kids to attend camp.”
Counselor Tonigail Warner Schurr spoke for many SuSIE staff when she said “Mr. Godici was an excellent camp director. He was kind and fair and had everyone's best interest in mind, especially the children. Camp always seemed to run smoothly with very few major issues. If there were problems, Mr. Godici handled them with his usual quiet reserve. The children had an opportunity that, in most cases, they otherwise may not ever have had. Great fun, great education and the experience of a lifetime. What more could you ask for?”
Among the paperwork I reviewed about Camp SuSIE was a report to the state on the program’s outcomes. It mentioned this goal: “When you strike a spark in a child, you give them a reason to hope.” Thanks to Buck Godici and his staff, hundreds of Fulton youth had the opportunity to spend a few weeks away from home, returning to our city with some of that hope.